Virginia Woolf On Autobiography And Not Writing ‘Directly About The Soul’

In Inspiration and Obsession in Life and Literature, (New York Review of Books, 13 August, 2015), Joyce Carol Oates writes:

[Virginia] Woolf suggests the power of a different sort of inspiration, the sheerly autobiographical—the work created out of intimacy with one’s own life and experience….What is required, beyond memory, is a perspective on one’s own past that is both a child’s and an adult’s, constituting an entirely new perspective. So the writer of autobiographical fiction is a time traveler in his or her life and the writing is often, as Woolf noted, “fertile” and “fluent”:

I am now writing as fast & freely as I have written in the whole of my life; more so—20 times more so—than any novel yet. I think this is the proof that I was on the right path; & that what fruit hangs in my soul is to be reached there…. The truth is, one can’t write directly about the soul. Looked at, it vanishes: but look [elsewhere] & the soul slips in. [link added above]

I will freely confess to being obsessed by autobiography and memoir. Three planned book projects of mine, each in varying stages of early drafting and note-taking, are autobiographical, even as I can see more similar ventures in the offing; another book, Shapeshifter: The Evolution of a Cricket Fan, currently contracted to Temple University Press, is a memoir; yet another book Eye on Cricket, has many autobiographical passages; and of course, I often write quasi-autobiographical, memoirish posts on this blog all the time. In many ways, my reasons for finding myself most comfortable in this genre echo those of Woolf’s: I find my writing within its confines to be at its most ‘fertile’ and ‘fluent’–if at all, it ever approaches those marks; I write ‘fast’ and ‘freely’ when I write about recollections and lessons learned therein; I find that combining my past sensations and memories with present and accumulated judgments and experiences results in a fascinating, more-than-stereoscopic perspective that I often find to be genuinely illuminating and revealing. (Writing memoirs is tricky business, as all who write them know. No man is an island and all that, and so our memoirs implicate the lives of others as they must; those lives might not appreciate their inclusion in our imperfect, incomplete, slanted, agenda-driven, literary recounting of them. Still, it is a risk many are willing to take.)

Most importantly, writing here, or elsewhere, on autobiographical subjects creates a ‘couch’ and a ‘clinic’ of sorts; I am the patient and I am the therapist; as I write, the therapeutic recounting and analysis and story-retelling kicks off; the end of a writing session has at its best moments, brought with it moments of clarity and insight about myself to the most important of quarters: moi. More than anything else, this therapeutic function of autobiographical writing confirms yet another of Woolf’s claims: that “one can’t write directly about the soul. Looked at, it vanishes.” Sometimes, one must look at the blank page, and hope to find the soul take shape there instead.


Book Release Announcement: Eye on Cricket: Reflections On The Great Game

I’m pleased to announce the release of my second book on on cricket–‘the game, not the animal, or the cartoon character’: Eye on Cricket: Reflections on the Great Game (HarperCollins, 2015; online sale point in India here). This brings together a collection of essays based on my blogging over at ESPN-Cricinfo–over the past six years. (These essays are not mere reproductions of those posts but significant extensions, revisions, and reworkings.)

Here is the cover:


Here is a foreword by Gideon Haigh, cricket’s pre-eminent historian:

I suspect that Samir Chopra and I were born to at least correspond. His blog profile lists as his interests ‘cricket, free software, military history, military aviation, hiking, tattoos, industrial music, travelling’. I don’t necessarily share those interests—although the military and musical tastes overlap—but they are interesting, and he brings to his cricket writing the sort of well-stocked and free-ranging mind ever in short supply.

Cricket bloggers have a tendency to come and go, say what they have to say, and move on. Samir, I think, gets better and better. I enjoy his style of taking a stray or miscellaneous pensée, then comparing and contrasting, unpicking and elaborating, until a surprisingly rigorous argument has been constructed and a provocative conclusion reached, whether it’s that Andy Flower had a nerve asking India to withdraw its run-out appeal for Ian Bell at Trent Bridge in 2011, or that Fire in Babylon was frankly overpraised—views I happen to share, although that is less the point that Samir makes such trenchant yet civil cases. They are like watching cricket with a thoughtful and challenging companion. Perhaps these are the conversations Samir would like to have had with someone at a Test match, but, alas, has had to conduct with himself in his self-imposed east-coast American exile. If so, we’re fortunate that he’s condemned to partake of his cricket by the interwebs in splendid isolation, as he describes in another lovely cameo here.

There was a lot that set me nodding in Eye on Cricket, in recognition and assent. Yes, sport is grossly overstuffed with martial imagery; yes, I also tend to appraise every library by what is on the shelves at 796.358. Being one himself, Samir understands the ‘playing fan’ and the vernacular cricketer with great acuity. ‘No game, no physical or cultural endeavour, can survive or be sustainable if held aloft only by the efforts of those most proficient at it,’ should hang in a gilded frame in the office of every cricket  administrator. I revelled in cricket-nerdish references to a light appeal by Sew Shivnarine, and to ‘Kirti Azad’s Finest Hour’ too. I’d read many of these pieces previously, yet was struck by how well they cohered in this collection—it was almost as though Samir had been unconsciously working towards this totality all along. I am surprised only that he has never written anything about Jade Dernbach. After all, it would bring together two of his interests. Over to you, Samir.

Here is the jacket description:

In Eye on Cricket, Samir Chopra, a professor of philosophy and a long-time blogger at ESPNcricinfo, offers us a deeply personal take on a game that has entranced him his entire life in the several lands he has called home.

In these essays, Chopra reflects on a childhood centred on cricket, the many obsessions of fandom, the intersection of the personal and the political, expatriate experiences of cricket, historical regrets and remembrances, and cricket writing and media.

Nostalgic, passionate and meditative, Eye on Cricket is steeped in cricket’s history and its cultural significance, and reminds the most devoted spectators of the game that they are not alone. It shows how a game may, by offering a common language of understanding, bring together even those separated by time and space and culture.